John Carpenter's 1976 cult classic Assault On Precinct 13 is a damn good movie and when a remake was announced, my first reaction was 'why?' I mean, it makes sense to remake a bad movie and try to improve on it, but why remake something that was done so well in the first place? It was the same kind of reaction I had to the Dawn Of The Dead remake, and, just like with that film, I ended up being pleasantly surprised by the end result. Neither film was as good as its predecessor but both served to be entertaining and enjoyable films that, when not held up to the impossible standards set by the earlier movies, were good, enjoyable time killers.
Ethan Hawke plays Sgt. Jake Roenick, a cop who, since seeing his coworkers slain under his command on an undercover mission gone wrong, mans the desk at Precinct 13 in Detroit, Michigan. It's New Years Eve, 2004 and as the new year creeps in, Roenick, joined by a soon to be retired cop named Jasper O'Shea (Brian Dennehy) and a foxy secretary named Iris (Drea de Matteo), gets ready for the precinct to be closed down for good. After his mandatory psychiatric evaluation is conducted by Dr. Alex Sabien (Maria Bello) and she heads out into the snowstorm to attend a New Years Eve Party, the rag tag band of good guys gets word that a prison transport bus is going to be redirected to their precinct until the storm blows over.
The bus rolls up and the two guards escort four prisoners into the holding cells – a woman named Anna (Aisha Hinds), a junkie named Beck (John Leguizamo), a criminal named Smiley (Ja Rule) and a big time crime lord named Bishop (Laurence Fishburne). Things seem to be going pretty smoothly until two armed men in masks break into the precinct in an attempt to spring Bishop – or at least that's what the cops originally think. Bishop knows that they're wrong though and that those are not his people, and he also knows that there are a whole lot more than just those two men who broke into the cell.
As it turns out, Bishop had made some deals with a crooked cop named Marcus Duvall and now that Bishop is going to court, he'll be able to bring down Duvall and all of the men serving under him unless they can get to him first. Sgt. Roenick knows that he's going to have to learn to trust the prisoners and that they're all going to have to work together once the electricity goes out and the phone lines are cut and they realize that they're drastically out gunned and out numbered.
Plenty of style and plenty of action make this remake move along at a very brisk pace. The action starts in the first scene and really keeps going right up until the end. While it may be a little predictable and it lacks the punch of the one really strong, stand out scene that was so memorable in the original (if you've seen it, you'll know what I'm talking about), it is a very well made shoot'em up thriller that finds a very nice balance between style and substance.
It doesn't have the benefit of John Carpenter's funky synth score overtop of it, but the film isn't full of nu-metal and hip hop either instead choosing wisely to rely on a rather evocative instrumental backdrop. Performances are pretty solid all around, Fishburne in particular doing a good job with the material and playing his character with a nice air of menace that does add sufficiently to the tension. While Ethan Hawke isn't going to take home an Academy Award for his performance, he doesn't do a bad job with the more dramatic aspects of the part and he does handle the action scenes quite capably. Brian Dennehy is Brian Dennehy no matter what and it's always fun to see him pop up in tough guy supporting roles.
Jean-Francois Richet's direction is stylish and strong and thankfully there's no over abundance of bad CGI or rapid fire editing here, just nice cinematography and a minimum amount of computer generated effects (when they are used, they're used wisely and not as a crutch). The movie is very dark, shadows are used quite well and the lighting is atmospheric and even creepy in a few spots.
While the film does stray from some of the plot lines in Carpenter's original film, I didn't have a problem with this (why make another Van Sant style Psycho remake that treads absolutely no new ground?) as the changes make sense and the movie gets enough right that it's worth seeing. It doesn't hit the same kind of stride that the first film did, but it works well enough on its own.
Universal provides Assault On Precinct 13 with a very nice 2.40.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that does justice to the very dark colors and star cinematography used throughout the film. With so much of the movie taking place in the dark it's obvious that a lot of the importance of this transfer lies in how well it can handle the black levels and thankfully, it comes through as they stay deep and solid throughout. There are no problems with print damage at all and mpeg compression is thankfully quite minor. One or two scene did show a little bit of film grain but nothing even close to distracting. Edge enhancement is present in a couple of scenes but overall this is a very nice looking transfer that suits the movie exceptionally well.
Audio options on the DVD are as follows: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mixes are available in French and English, and a DTS 5.1 Surround Sound mix is available in English. Optional subtitles are available in French and Spanish and there are closed captions available in English. As you probably could have guessed, the surround mixes are all quite aggressive and offer plenty of opportunity to work your surround sound system nicely. Directional effects whiz past you from all channels especially during the firefights. Bass response is very strong and you'll really feel the explosions when they go off. The DTS mix has a little bit better bass action than the Dolby Digital track does, but both of these tracks are very nicely done and make the movie a lot more fun.
First up as far as the extra features are concerned is a full length commentary track with director Jean-Francois Richet who is joined by writer James DeMonaco and producer Jeffrey Silver. This is a pretty lively track as the three discuss how the idea came about to remake the film, how they tried to make things different and what they wanted to keep the same. There are plenty of anecdotes about working with some of the performers and there's some good technical information in here as well in regards to some of the locations and some of the stunt and effects work.
Up next are a handful of deleted scenes (roughly six minutes of material in total)that are available with or without commentary from Richet. While it's nice to see these included, there's nothing all that revelatory contained in here and most of this footage is mild character development material that was chopped out for timing and pacing reasons.
Four behind the scenes featurettes are up next, each focusing on a different aspect of the movie's production. The Assault Team, Behind Precinct Walls, Plan of Attack and Armed and Dangerous. Through these four short pieces we learn about what went into the set design, the weapons used in the film, how some of the stunt work and action scenes were handled and some of the fight choreography was executed. These are moderately interesting but they don't quite go into as much detail as they could have.
Finally, Caught In The Crosshairs is a making of featurette that features interviews with most of the key cast and crew members who discuss their experiences working on the film, what they thought of their characters, and why they took the roles in the first place. The producer and writer discuss their admiration for Carpenter's original and what direction they wanted to take the story in from there as well as some of the pressure associated with remaking a cult classic. There are also some trailers for other Universal/Rogue pictures releases that play at the beginning of the disc.
Well, it's not as good as the original but it was a lot better than I expected. Assault On Precinct 13 is a fast paced action thriller with some pretty decent performances and solid moments of genuine tension. Universal's DVD looks and sounds great and the extra features aren't half bad either. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.